Thursday, May 31, 2012

Taming technology and launching into social media


Whether wrestling with a cantankerous laptop, grappling with an updated software package, or tackling the latest online tool, technology can be simultaneously frightening, overwhelming, amazing, and stunningly cool.

It all kind of depends on your frame of reference when dealing with it.

As with anything new, there’s always the initial, “Ooo..this looks scary!” factor. But first-fright can be overcome with awareness, education, and experience.

Breaking open the Pandora-less box

As a technical sales proposal writer/editor at AT&T in the 80s, we did everything on UNIX® terminals using DOS-like programs called VI and ED. There was nothing WYSIWYG about them. Learning UNIX was both intimidating and fascinating. Using it was a pain.

Those of us creating documents hated UNIX and begged for something more user-friendly. I was the loudest change advocate.

One day, a new PC, still in the box, was delivered to my cubicle. A few minutes later, my manager stopped by and said, “Have fun!” Learning how to use this beast was left up to me!

I assembled it, read the instructions, turned it on, and began playing around in the Windows 3.1 environment. I was in love!

Within a few months I’d mastered some essential tools, including DOS, and could fearlessly troubleshoot problems, including opening the PC up to add memory and other hardware. Within a year, our whole division moved from UNIX terminals to PCs and never looked back..

Putting down the toys and picking up the tools

Today, with some trepidation, I can edit the Windows registry, as well as open up my laptop to clean spilled wine from the keyboard or replace a dying WiFi card. The point is, once I gained some awareness, education, and experience, all technology became less scary.

Online, it’s a whole new vista of opportunities, from social media to productivity tools to fun stuff.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Evernote, Spotify – a host of tools and toys beckon us to come play and putter.

When it comes to social media, a communicators’ challenge with these is twofold:
  1. First, sorting through them to select the tools that will best serve our needs.
  2. Second, learning how to use and manage them effectively without being overwhelmed.
Oh, and I guess there is a third challenge: Developing the discipline to put down the toys when there’s work to be done! Curse you, Angry Birds!

I promise, it’s going to be fun, even without Angry Birds!

Don’t jump into any social media channel because there’s a sudden surge of hoopla; wait and let things sort out a bit. Then, go through the steps above. Just because something gets touted in the moment as the next big thing, doesn’t mean (a) that it really is and (b) that you need to be a part of it.

So how do you go about selecting the right tools from the seemingly endless supply of “essential” channels? Here are a few tips:

  1. Look around. What are your competitors or organizations similar to yours using? Often the right thing to do is what no one else is so you can stand apart. But this is probably not a good idea with social media tools and channels. Being different in this area could equate to being unseen. You want to be where people will show up.
        
  2. Look around some more. On what social media sites are you customers or your constituency spending their time? Odds are they’ll at least be on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, or Pinterest. You want to be where they are.
        
  3. Look wider. Where are larger companies and organizations who aren’t like you engaging customers and constituencies? Are there channel choices matching up with what you’ve learned from looking at your colleagues and clients? You may want to be where the big dogs play.
        
  4. Look more narrowly. Check out the smaller companies and organizations that are being successful in their niches. Here you’ll often discover the premonitions of new trends. You may want to dabble where things are trending.
        
  5. Evaluate within your context. Finally, take all you’ve learned from steps 1 through 4 and assess the various tools and channels within the context of your organization. Consider the money, time, people, and other resources that will be required to be successful with social media. If you can’t support long-term involvement, don’t go there. It’s better to be successful on one social media platform than to fail across several. If all you can manage is Facebook, start there and leave the others alone.
Once you choose a social media platform to launch into, take your time. Observe what others are doing and posting. Check out comments. Read help pages. Get to know the technical aspects of the tool. You should be able to find a ton of good information online for most questions you may have. For special insight, simply ask others who have been in the channel for awhile.

And if there are moments you get frustrated, step away from the social media and play some Angry Birds for awhile. It’ll help you keep a healthy perspective on things.

To help you get started, here are a few links to some great resources:

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How are you using social media? What are pitfalls you’ve encountered? Any special tips or tricks? Are your social media efforts paying off or just costing you? Please comment below!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Finite Cause, Infinite Effect …. Until


The butterfly effect is a term from chaos theory referring to the potential of a small initial cause having a larger ultimate effect. For example, the wind from a butterfly flapping its wings on one continent potentially influencing the direction of a hurricane halfway across the world.

The idea comes up in science fiction movies and stories involving time travel. Time travelers to the past are supposed to be abundantly cautious not to change anything in history for fear of ultimately transforming the future, or present, or wherever they came from and want to return to!

Newton’s third law of motion describes how every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This can be evidenced by two people on ice skates pushing away from each other; they go off in opposite directions at the same speed.

These notions speak to cause and effect where something happens and something else results. The results can spread out like ripples from a stone tossed into the water, going on and on.

We easily grasp and agree with these concepts. It’s intriguing to think about how stepping on a flower in the past can have a profound, usually negative effect in the future. Or how a puff of wind in Africa can stir up a hurricane off our east coast.

Yet, at the same time, we just as easily reject the idea that dabbling in some questionable behavior or exposing ourselves to some negative influence will have any impact on us or others.

Divorcing parents insist that the children will be fine. Viewers of racy soap operas insist that it has no impact on their thinking. Creators of gruesome video games insist that playing them for hours doesn’t desensitize the players. Makers of violent movies insist that it’s all just entertainment. Dabblers in porn, whether videos, magazines, websites, or books such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” insist that their moral compasses aren’t being harmed.

We claim there’s no harm, but we know better. Finite causes can have infinite effects, for better or for worse.

Sin can seem as harmless as the imperceptible wind coming off a butterfly’s wings, yet can create horrendously damaging hurricanes in our lives and the lives of those close to us.

In the beginning, when God created everything, cause and effect happened in a big way that ripples into the present. God created a perfect world that Satan just couldn’t leave untouched. We deal with the effects daily.

God cautioned Cain, “Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it’” (Genesis 4:6-7, NIV).

Cain chose incorrectly and Abel died. The impact of that bad choice reverberates throughout the world today.

We have free will and can do whatever we want. But each choice has a consequence. Paul advises, “’Everything is permissible’ – but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’ – but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23, NIV).

Destructive choices can create real consequences that persist for decades. The good news is that these consequences do not have to carry on into eternity; they do not have to have infinite reach.

As God advised Cain, all we have to do is make the right choice and we will be accepted by Him. The right choice is to confess our failings, turn away from continuing to do the wrong thing, and set our hearts on living a righteous life.

1 John 1:9 promises unequivocally that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” This is the only way to stop the butterfly effect of sin from creating more storms.

Are you making good choices today?

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Do you think there are such things as white lies? Do you think it’s okay for Christians to “dabble” in questionable things such as porn, gambling, drinking, premarital sex, or something else? Any other thoughts about this post? Please leave a comment below!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!*

Every once in awhile, I’ll meet someone, have a pleasant conversation with them, and feel like I’ve gained a sense of their personality. And then I’ll get an email from them.

The email sounds stilted, obtuse, cold, and like it was written by their corporate lawyer or the Jubjub bird. It is totally unlike the person I met!

Sigh.

One of the most ferocious and persistent battles writers face when working with or in corporations is the war against gobbledygook, weasel words, and corporate speak.

And as in uffish thought he stood!

Have you ever read a document that contained phrases such as these?
  • benchmark world-class deliverables
  • unleash global web-readiness
  • syndicate world-class vortals
  • scale mission-critical markets
  • innovate user-centric systems
  • deploy holistic ROI
Do you have any idea what’s actually meant?

Be honest! You may think you do but I challenge you to rewrite each of the above into a simple, clear, coherent sentence.

Yeah, I didn’t think you could.

Common buzzwords bandied about in corporate writing include such gems as leverage, process, interactive, solutions, empowerment, ownership, strategic, assessment, competency, team, customer satisfaction, validate, support, asset, environment, parameter, maximize, focus, system, paradigm, and so many more.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Business people who are clueless about how to write well will generously pepper their emails, memos, reports, and presentations with these and other buzzwords. They string them together to create awesome sounding yet totally meaningless documents.

They breathlessly write such awfulness as “at the end of the day empowerment strategies must be globally deployed across silos to flatten and realign assessment paradigms that will yield world class solutions outside the box while increasing downside revenues during an off economy in the short term in order to add shareholder and stakeholder value….”

Sounds impressive yet it’s totally meaningless. And I loathe the phrase “at the end of the day.”

Ah, the sublime poetry of C-suite writers. We don’t know what they’re saying but they sure know how to use those big, impressive words!

Ambiguity! Obfuscation! Opacity! Boredom! Death!

No one talks like this. If you happen to meet someone who does, slap them silly with a copy of Strunk and White. You do have one, don’t you?

In his book The Dilbert Principle, Scott Adams warps the simple phrase, "I used my fork to eat a potato,” into the buzzworded disaster, "I utilized a multitined tool to process a starch resource."

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

The next time you’re tempted to employ beclouding verbosity, stop! Heed these simple tips to unbusy your business writing to create content that will tantalize and enlighten your readers:
  1. Use conversational English. Write the way you and your colleagues talk. Keep your writing simple, direct, and accessible.
      
  2. Use short sentences and compact paragraphs. Vary the length of your sentences. Break up big paragraphs. Make it easy for your reader to read.
      
  3. Use simple words.  Change words such as “utilize” to “use,” “paradigm” to “model,” “example,” or “set of values.”
      
  4. Use bullets. When you are making two or more points under a main thought, make them bullets. If the points indicate a sequence, use a number list.
      
  5. Use common sense. Write the way you wish others would write when you’re reading another completely indecipherable corporate memo.
When authoring corporate compositions and declarations, employing linguistic devices that deconstruct elaborate phrasal permutations will yield outputs from which obsfuscatory verbosity has been annihilated resulting in more elucidating treatises and memorandums.

Translation: Writing with clarity is a good thing.

Do you have examples of really bad corporate writing? Stories of dealing with executives who don’t get it? Perhaps experiences with corporate lawyers who insist on dense writing? Or your own tips for better business writing?

Sound off! I’d love to read your comments, stories, and examples.  

And if you really must use bad business writing, here are some fun tools to assist you:
    


(*Jabberwocky)

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Thoughts?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sidewalk challenge: A life lesson?

BethAnn and I were out walking a couple of days ago when we encountered a series of chalk warnings on the sidewalk.

"Do not cross this line!" declared the first.

We chuckled, and crossed the line, encountering the same warning a second time, which we also crossed.

The third gave us a real chuckle: "Ant crossing!"

The ants didn't seem to be heeding these signs either, as was apparent by the ant mounds marring the next, more ominous caution:

"Seriously we mean it! Do not cross this line!!"

Two exclamation points indicated there could be real consequences ahead. But like the heedless ants, we walked on, still chuckling, and came to the final admonition:

"Whatever!!"

This cracked us up, but not as much as the final posting placed near the curb just before the street.Three numbered boxes were captioned, "Short Attention Span Hopscotch."

Someone in our neighborhood has a great sense of humor. But in life, we encounter more serious challenges than chalked cautions on a sidewalk.

There are lines we should not cross but do. At first we may hesitate, knowing there could be consequences, but really wanting what's on the other side.

With each stepping over it gets easier. The consequences aren't always readily apparent and so we feel safe in our ignoring of boundaries. Soon, we are crossing lines with abandon, playing a game of "short attention span hopscotch" with our lives.

The reality is that when we ignore God's lines and boundaries, the "whatever" will eventually cost us, maybe in this life, maybe in the next.

Where do you draw the line?
















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Thoughts?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Emoting through email


I’ve got a good friend who’s not so keen on email. He prefers the phone. But connecting by phone given his schedule is not always easy. So I email him. Sometimes it’ll take a couple of emails to two different email addresses to nudge him to reply.

Responding to a recent email he stated, “It has been a long time since we talked. This, by the way is email, not talking!”

Well, it may not be talking but it is communicating!

Many complain that email is not as personable or effective as face-to-face communication or a phone call. Some refuse to deal with emails, insisting on a call or a meeting, especially if the issue being dealt with is emotional or sensitive.

Their complaint is that nuance, such as body language and tone of voice, is lost in email. Email is cold, emotionless, and evil!

Nonsense!

For hundreds of years, since the invention of writing, people have emoted and communicated well through writing.

Email is not evil, but your writing may be

Think about it.

Way back in the pre-digital dark ages, the only communication channel available was face-to-face. This was handy dandy when everyone you needed to share information with lived within easy walking distance.

But then people spread out. Since it would be awhile before Al Gore invented the Internet, other means of long-distance communication had to be developed.

Yelling! Drums! Smoke signals! Town criers! Runners zipping from village to village with half-forgotten hastily-memorized messages! Telegraph was the original instant message. Stop.

Prior to the invention of the phone, moveable type, and Skype, a well-written letter was the channel of choice for moving detailed information across long distances.

Libraries are full of collections of letters written by historical notables and nobodies that provide keen insight into our past. These letters exude clear meaning and real emotion; even without meeting the writer in person, we are able to get a strong sense of who they were and what they were like.

Even today, a carefully crafted letter -- whether produced by hand or PC, delivered by digital fairies or the mailman -- is a treasure.

Email is nothing more than a digital letter.

Write lovingly and you’ll connect

Why are old letters treasured? Because they were crafted with care, thought, reason, and love, or at least some degree of passion and interest.

The personalities of the writers shone through the writing. The writers didn’t merely dash off a thoughtless note, they wrote well thought out messages.

You can create email messages that deliver your message and your personality!

Here’s how.

  1. Organize your thoughts before you write your email. Sometimes this is best done with pen and paper. Yes, I’m serious. Jotting out a little outline can help you better visualize the message you want to deliver.
      
  2. Structure the message logically. It’s tempting to dash off an email without really thinking about the overall structure. This is deadly and definitely not personable. Arrange the points in some sort of useful sequence.
      
  3. Keep the tone friendly, but not too casual. Avoid slipping into deadly business-ese, but also stay away from cute-isms. Write like your message is of vital importance, because it is. If your message isn’t important, why are you bothering people with it?
      
  4. Be clear on the action you want the recipient(s) to take. Do you want to them to answer a question? Buy your merchandise? Call you later? Be specific and clear about the what’s, when’s, and how’s of your message.
      
  5. Write in a pleasant frame of mind. Seriously! Your attitude will come through in your writing by the words you choose and how you arrange them on the digital page. A happy person will write an upbeat message; lazy, angry, or sad writers will come across just that way.
      
  6. Read and re-read your message before sending. Yes, you do have time for this! You want your email to be clear, complete, concise, and clever. You want the recipient(s) to read it, understand it, and act on it – promptly. Taking the time to review you message allows you to catch typos, rephrase unclear points, and move sentences around so your message is perfect. If what you send is messy, unclear, incomplete, or confusing, you’ll spend a lot more time having to explain what you really meant, and you’ll leave a bad impression on those you emailed.

If the message is truly important (and aren’t they all?) read it out loud. This may not be feasible in a cubicle setting. If you can, do it; reading out loud will help you hear how your message sounds to others.

Keep in mind that an email is a letter -- not an instant message, Tweet, or Facebook post. Writing email requires more effort and deserves more care.

Allow your personality to shine through your messages. The more you write with care, the more receptive your recipients, and the result will be a positive email experience for all.

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Thoughts?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

You're not a leper: Putting little satans to death

There are days I feel like a leper.

You know, one of those people who walk around shouting, “Unclean! Unclean!” And wearing a placard that warns others of their untouchableness.

Or like I’ve got an indelible scarlet letter tattooed on my forehead.

Why?

Because I’ve got a messy past. I’ve made mistakes. Big ones and little ones. (You can click here to read some of the details.)

Forgiven, but not forgotten

Psalm 103:8-14 (NIV,) says,
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (emphasis mine).
Even knowing this is the reality and that I’m not a spiritual leper, I still feel like one from time to time. I’m pretty sure there are others like me, too.

Unfortunately there are people who put themselves above the Lord, kind of like Satan tried to do. These “little satans” busy themselves, tirelessly gathering our scattered sins, real and imagined, from the four corners of forgiveness.

They then put them on display, taking on the role of curators to our pasts. They tell their tales about us endlessly to any who will listen. And many will listen, rapt and unquestioning, shaking their heads as our past sins are recounted, point by well-embellished point, as if they are ever-present and never forgiven.

A trip is not a fall

In the church I grew up in, there was always a lot of talk about backsliders. These were people who confessed Christ and then screwed up. Kind of like you and me.

Often, these failings weren’t that big of a deal, but that made no difference. In the minds of those casting stones, once a backslider, always a backslider.

For example, if someone went down to the altar on Sunday night, cried out to the Lord, gave their life to Him, and then laid their pack of cigarettes down promising never to take up the “filthy” habit again, there were raucous shouts of “Hallelujah!” and “Praise Jesus!” from every pew.

But then, later that week weakness would have its way with the confessor, they’d light up, someone from the church saw them or smelled the smoke on them, and the stones would fly! The smoking confessor was now a spiritual leper.

It didn’t make any difference if it was one fault or a series of faults or that decades passed with no repeat of the faults, the verdict was irreversible and eternal. That you eventually became smoke free -- literally or figuratively -- had no bearing on your sentence.

Many “backsliders” came and then mostly went from our church. Even those, like I was, who were brought up in this milieu, eventually stepped away.

Either they did something that got them labeled as a spiritual leper, or they feared it was only a matter of time. The stone-throwing, finger-pointing, accusatory little satans were always watching, waiting, hoping for a target.

After all, we’re all made of dust and, along with Paul, “know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19, NIV).

The reality is that failure, big or small, is only a matter of time for all believers.

I’ve let go, now you let go!

I have Facebook friends who are always posting cute little mini-quote-posters that say things like, “Your past doesn’t define you; let it go.”

I have! But there are little satans who won’t!

As a result, their devilish sin-mongering pulls our pasts into the present and displays it as if it’s something new. The consequences are real: Damaged reputations, broken relationships, lost jobs, divorce, estranged families, and on and on.

Why do these little satans do this?

There are many reasons; anger, pride, jealousy, small-mindedness, revenge, greed, manipulation, control, power-mongering, poor self image, and more.

But what’s underneath all of these reasons is the reality that they remain unforgiven themselves.

And they remain unforgiven because they refuse to confess their own sinfulness.

They refuse to confess their own sinfulness because they don’t view themselves as sinners.

“They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good” (Titus 1:16, NIV).

Little satans are simply doing the work of their father who is not God.

John calls them out saying, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44, NIV).

And he is the father of little satans.

Putting little satans to death

Smokey Bear reminds us, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” The same is true when it comes to dealing with little satans.

James warns, “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell….It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness” (James 3:5-9, NIV).

Whenever we encounter someone who is using their tongue to burn down the life of a repentant believer, here is how to respond:

  1. Refuse to listen. This is easier said than done, because these people are persistent in peddling their lies. But if you can walk away, do so. Most likely they will pursue you because they hate to be ignored. Perversely, lying about another person makes them feel powerful and valuable. They feel it’s their mission to warn the world about the one they are accusing. The reality is that they are the ones the world needs to avoid! 1 Timothy 4:7 cautions that we are to, "Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives' tales…" (NIV). And Ephesians 5:11 exhorts us to, "Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them" (NIV).
      
  2. If you’re cornered, ask probing questions. These little satans are never satisfied with sticking to the facts. If they did, they’d run out of stories to tell. Instead, they incessantly embellish, twist, and add to their “facts.” Their tales will easily fall apart under meticulous questioning. Listen carefully if a question does catch them up short; they are very skilled at shifting their stories to reclose the gaps. The truth is that they hate to be questioned and may simply walk away from you instead of giving you answers. Never take anything they say at face value.
      
  3. Remind them of God’s truth! Take them into the Word and show them again and again where it says we are forgiven if we confess our sins (1 John 1:9); we are all sinners (Romans 3:13, 1 John 1:10); gossip is wrong (Proverbs 11:13, Romans 1:29, 1 Timothy 5:13); they are emulating Satan by being accusatory (Revelation 12:10); Jesus commands us to forgive others without qualification (Matthew 18:21); unforgiveness leads to harsh judgment (Matthew 5:22); denying the work of the Holy Spirit in their life or the life of those they are accusing grieves the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:32); and, the true mark of a Christian is to forgive, love, and protect our fellow believers (John 13:34-35, Romans 12:10, Ephesians 4:2, Hebrews 10:24, 1 John 4:7).

If you have been marked as a spiritual leper, know that you are not. God loves you. His goal is not to pound you down but to build you up. Jesus doesn’t go around accusing, He stands beside you encouraging. The Holy Spirit has come not to condemn you, but to bring forgiveness to fruition in your heart and life.

Billy Graham states, “If we have no mercy toward others, that is one proof that we have never experienced God’s mercy.”

Those who show no mercy, who withhold love, who hoard the forgiven sins of others to put on display do not belong to God. They belong to Satan. And we are to have nothing to do with Satan and his ilk.

Has someone ever made you feel like a spiritual leper?

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Thoughts?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

This is really something!

I guess it's a tad ironic that I didn't post anything to my blog this week. My intent is to get something up by around each Tuesday. But life sometimes impedes and it just doesn't happen.

Why the irony?

Well, I opened my email this morning and there was a message titled, "Good news from the EPA." No, this isn't from that havoc-creating environmental protection agency. It's from the Evangelical Press Association*.

I first joined the EPA back in the 80s and have maintained my membership consistently. They're a good bunch of people.

This year, on a whim, I entered their annual contest. And that's what the good news refers to.

The message read: "Earlier today we announced the winners of the Evangelical Press Association* awards, and you received the first place award in the Single Author blog category."

Say what? I won? First place? Seriously? Really?!?! THIS blog?

Since the email was sent out at 3AM I was a bit concerned that a sleep-deprived, groggy-headed mistake had been made. But, there on the EPA website, way down on the page, you can find my name listed next to the award.

As my wife likes to exclaim, "Wowsy wow wow!"

I've really won my very own "major award!" Woot!

Comments from the judges included:
  • Excellent writing, editing, and proofreading.
  • Very consistent content quality.
  • Creative, conversational, authoritative style.
  • Relevant, engaging content - and design - call-out quotes and images are nice touch.
  • Some perspectives and approaches are unique
And the overall comment: "Very well written and presented blog. Well done!"

I am so blown away, honored, humbled, and amazed by this recognition of the skill and talent with which God has blessed me. My intent is always to honor Him and bless others with my writing. It seems that I am being at least somewhat successful in this endeavor. That's nice to know.

So, thank you to the EPA judges and to you, my few loyal readers. And thanks also to Steve Dicken, Zenas Bicket, Elsie Elmendorf, Bob Walker, and a few others, who helped shape my writing skills. You definitely own a share of this prize.

This is a really good day! A day that God has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!


*FYI: The EPA is a professional association of some 300 Christian magazines, newsletters, newspapers and content-rich websites from throughout North America. EPA's purpose is “to strengthen evangelical periodicals through inspiration, instruction, and networking.”


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Thoughts?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

How to be seen when normal makes you invisible

Years ago I had a client who always managed to slip the phrase, “Nobody notices normal!” into our brainstorming sessions.

It was his way of reminding me that in marketing, public relations, and all forms of communication engagement, doing the same old same old will eventually get you ignored.

To be noticed and effectively engage your target audience requires being different and changing things up from time to time. Even being a tad wacky.

A common challenge issued by creativity sparkers is to “think outside the box!” This admonishment has become so “normal” that to be different could mean doing the opposite!

The challenge is figuring out how to not be normal without being abnormal, and thus viewed as weird, in the bad sense of the word.


Albert Szent-Gyorgyi declared that, “Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.”

In other words, discover in the commonplace the uncommon.

Here are three tips to help you see differently and move away from the invisibility of the familiar and normal:

1. Break the rules instead of following guidelines

This one is pretty obvious, right? But it’s not necessarily easy to do because it does entail a bit of risk. It also requires employing good judgment so you don’t go too far astray.

To break a rule you need first to figure out what they are.

And please note that I’m not talking about breaking any laws which could land you jail; that’s a kind of “different” you don’t need.

We’re surrounded by hundreds of implied or unspoken “rules.” Never wear white socks with a black suit or white clothes after Labor Day. Don’t chew with your mouth open. Limit the use of “and” in your writing and don’t begin a sentence with and. Sign direct mail letters with blue ink instead of black. And so it goes.

But what are the “rules” that are constraining you regarding the specific task you need a breakthrough on? Are they real? Imagined? Dictated by a client, HR, the law department, or a style manual? Perhaps you are you simply constrained by that conventional and conservative voice in your head chanting, “Be careful. Don’t rock the boat. Go along with everyone else.”

If you see a way to be different that involves breaking a rule, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

And then ask, “What’s the best that could happen?”

Push that envelope, walk away from the cliché, and get yourself noticed!

2. Make new connections instead of doing what’s expected

Years ago, my high school drama/speech teacher threw a half-dozen pieces of colored chalk on the floor, invited us to stare down at them, and then challenged us to see differently. Instead of pieces of chalk, what else could be represented?

It took us awhile, but the ideas began to spark as we all moved around the chalk, viewing the pieces from different angles. Some of the responses were pretty flighty but they allowed our imaginations to take flight, and that was the point.

It was a simple exercise with a profound impact.

I absolutely loathe those icebreakers that ask you to introduce yourself by stating, if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be and why. But if an exercise like this works for you, go for it.

The tree exercise is basically taking a trip to who you are by way of the scenic route of metaphor.

Taking a different path, such as the one less traveled, is how you make new connections. You still move from point A to point Z, but instead of using straight line logic, you add some zigs and zags.

Asking “What if?” questions is another good way to go.

3. Play instead of brainstorm

This is one of my favorite things to do.

My office bookshelves, in addition to books, are loaded with gadgets, gizmos, noise-making toys, trinkets, and assorted odds and ends. And of course, I’ve got a couple of Hoops & Yoyo items that talk to me.

Handling them, playing with them, bouncing a ball, yo-yoing a yo-yo, firing a “space” gun, shooting rubber darts at the walls all contribute to freeing the imagination. Reading comics or children’s books works, too.

Physical play helps distract the mind from logical constraints and allows you to more easily see old things in new ways.

It’s like being a kid again and seeing something for the first time; you aren’t encountering an expectation, you are making a discovery of the refreshing unknown.

Familiarity breeds invisibility

Rules, guidelines, assembly instructions, tradition, conventional wisdom, job descriptions, and the like are all good and useful tools, except when they aren’t.

In every job there will be instances where no SOP (standing operating procedure) exists. You’ll be required to act based on your experience and instinct to solve a problem that’s never occurred before, or at least was never documented.

Normal will not help you to creatively get a message through the clutter, to reach and touch other human beings in a transforming manner, to break through to real innovation, or to exhibit compassion through versatility.

These are times to sidestep normal and maybe be just a little wacky, which could lead to the unique result that brings desired attention to your message, product, or service.

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How do you avoid being invisible and spark your imagination into view?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

To be perfectly honest, more or less


How often have you started a comment with the words, “Well, to tell you the truth...” On Facebook, this has been reduced to an acronym favored by pre-teens: tbh (to be honest).

We do this not because we’re inveterate liars – even though that may be the case – but to emphasize the weight and unassailable nature of the insight or wisdom we are about to share.

You can tell it’s a presidential election year because so much of what’s being said as truth really isn’t. It makes no difference what party the person telling the lies is or isn’t part of, everyone’s doing it.

A lot of these lies are couched in semblances of truth. They sound true, but a mere scratch on the surface reveals them to be otherwise. Often someone “innocently” passes on an untruth that someone else started. Then they weakly defend themselves by pointing elsewhere.

All of this is especially sad and harmful when done by Christians. As followers of Christ and believers in the Bible, we should always be truth-tellers, telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God.

Stretching the "truth" into a lie

Recently, Sam “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher who is challenging incumbent Marcy Kaptur for a U.S. Representative spot, issued a letter claiming President Obama’s parents were communists. This letter even garnered attention from CBN.

Wurzelbacher claims to be a Christian. I assume that he is. When his campaign people were challenged about the communist claim, they pointed to a 2007 article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune. The article profiled President Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham.

A PolitiFact column in The Plain Dealer reveals, “The article stated that Dunham attended a Washington state high school where a teacher asked students to read ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and the school board chairman told the House Un-American Activities Subcommittee that he had been a communist Party member. A classmate of Dunham’s called her ‘a fellow traveler,’ and claimed ‘We were liberals before we knew what liberals were.’”

Essentially, Wurzelbacher was inferring from these facts that President Obama’s parents were communist. There is absolutely no real proof that this was the case. And claiming that someone who reads or asks others to read “The Communist Manifesto” is a communist is like saying someone who goes to church is a Christian. Or if it’s parked in a garage it’s a car. Or, if you read a book about space exploration you must be an astronaut.

Reading a book is a way to gain knowledge. Many church goers reject God. Garages can also house lawn mowers. And it takes a lot more than reading a book to become an astronaut.

In short, Wurzelbacher’s letter is a lie.

If it sounds true, it must be true, especially if it supports my biased opinion

I really don’t understand why so many people love to get sucked into conspiracies. Yet, even in the face of hard unassailable facts, they will insist there is more to a story, that something evil is afoot.

Recently, the urban myth debunking website Snopes.com has gotten caught up in this foolishness.

An email circulating claims that the site is funded by George Soros (it is not) and that it somehow edits or does not post information that does not support President Obama (it does not).

The email twists questionable facts and the truth to support the writer’s spurious and pointless claims. Diligent researching of the claims will show that they are false and the email is a product of blatant spin.

However, instead of researching the claims, believers blindly forward the email around, wag their fingers at Snopes, and continue to believe lies about President Obama and others. This is nothing less than bearing false witness which is a violation of the ninth commandment.

Proverbs 6:16-19 warns, “There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.”

By the way, the originator of this slanderous email has cloaked themselves in anonymity – usually a clear red flag.

We don't need to obey no stinking laws

I recently received an email from an organization called “Champion the Vote.” It opened with, “Dear Friend, We know that the church today is concerned about the future of our nation. One way you can make a difference is by helping to get Christians registered to vote and educated in the Biblical worldview.”

It was signed simply, “Thanks, Champion the Vote.”

While the cause stated in the opening seems very noble, the email and the website it pointed to gave rise to concerns.

First, the email violated CAN-SPAM laws which were enacted in 2004 and aim to curtail unsolicited and spurious emails.

To be compliant, recipients of your emails must have opted-in, meaning they have chosen to receive your messages. I’d never heard of this organization and did not give them my email address.

The sender must also include full contact information (address, phone, etc,) as well as an easy way to unsubscribe from the email list. None of this was included in the message.

Next, when I went to the website referenced, in the About Us section there was nothing included in the way of names and bios of the people behind the site. There was a reference, but no hyperlink, to another organization. I searched on that organization’s name, found another website, and finally learned of the identities of those involved.

Further, buried in the original site were references to notable individuals, but there was no indication that these individuals endorsed this site and what it was promoting. But including their names lends the implication that this is so.

Finally, as far as contact information on the website, there was an 888 number included, but no address.

It’s sad that an allegedly Christian organization promoting what seems a noble cause would not follow the law when sending emails and then shade their identities.

Flee falsehood, let your yes be yes, shine for Jesus

As Christians wanting to make a positive impact on our world, we must be extra careful to be honest, up front, transparent in our dealings, and to obey the law. This is especially relevant in this presidential election year.

When sharing emails, discussing politics, or drumming up support, here are three simple rules we should observe and put into rigorous practice:
  1. Flee falsehood. Ephesians 4:25 states plainly, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” If you indulge in falsehoods, according to Revelation 22:15, you are in very bad company: “Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”
  2. Stick to the facts and avoid spin. Jesus cautioned in Matthew 5:37 to, “Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Proverbs 23:23 encourages us to, “Buy the truth and do not sell it; get wisdom, discipline and understanding.” And Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6:14, that at all times we are to, “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place.”
  3. Let your light shine. Be transparent about who you are and your motives. Matthew 5:16 states, “…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” There’s too much garbage being spewed by those calling themselves Christians that is making believers a laughingstock to unbelievers.
If what is being passed along is the unvarnished and unspun truth, is motivated by justice and love, and honors God, then the sender will not hesitate to identify themselves, clearly cite their sources, follow the law, and encourage questions.

If you receive an email that doesn’t include the originator’s name, contains information without citing sources, implies a conspiracy, is even slightly hateful in tone or intent, or just sounds bogus, don’t forward it!

If you do forward it, at least do some minimal research to try to ensure what you are forwarding is truthful. Otherwise, you are damaging the Kingdom of God and making all Christians look bad, and putting a stumbling block in the path of those who need to meet the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

When our cause is true, noble, just, honorable, and godly, then we need not spin, stretch, or shadow our message.

If we tell the truth and become known for telling the truth, we will never need to precede any statement with the qualifier, “Well, to tell you the truth....” To do so would be redundant, tbh!